Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s past is proving to be his Achilles’ heel, with activists pointing to allegations of rights abuses and the unceremonious way in which he was bundled out of the armed forces in 1998.
“There are mounting calls from the public for the military to release the documents on Prabowo’s discharge,” Poltak Agustinus Sinaga, the head of the Association of Legal Aid and Human Rights Institutions, or PBHI, said in Jakarta on Thursday.
“The people need to know the true factors behind Prabowo’s dishonorable discharge. Was it because of the kidnapping [of anti-Suharto demonstrators]? Was it because he was planning a coup d’etat? Whatever it was, the public needs to know because it concerns a man who is running for president.”
Rights groups have long questioned Prabowo’s eligibility to run for president, noting that he was discharged from the Army in August 1998 for “misinterpreting orders” in the abduction of the democracy activists earlier that year.
While that was the military’s official statement, observers have long believed that it was a coup conspiracy that saw Prabowo, then the commander of the Army Strategic Reserves, given his marching orders.
Prabowo has admitted to the abductions, but claimed he was just following orders. He has repeatedly denied eyeing a coup, despite trying to storm the presidential office with truckloads of his troops a day after Suharto resigned.
Prabowo is now angling for the endorsement of the influential Democratic Party, with whose chairman, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he served in the Army.
Growing signs that Yudhoyono is leaning toward supporting Prabowo, however, have been met with criticism.
“As a soldier, SBY knows full well the importance of discipline and upholding the Constitution,” Arie Sudjito, a political expert from Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University.
“He also knows that Prabowo was discharged from the military, so why would he want to support him now?”
Yudhoyono, the military’s chief of staff for sociopolitical affairs during the tumultuous period in 1998, served on the military tribunal that discharged Prabowo.
“So it’s ironic that he should now want to endorse him, knowing his disciplinary problem,” Arie said.
He also argued that Yudhoyono would be doing his Democratic Party, laid low by a litany of corruption scandals, no favors by allying it with Prabowo’s coalition, which includes a host of parties whose top officials have been the subject of graft allegations.
Key among them is the United Development Party, or PPP, whose chairman, Suryadharma Ali, resigned on Wednesday as the minister for religious affairs after being named a suspect in the embezzlement of hajj management funds.
Another graft-hit party in Prabowo’s coalition is the Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, whose president, Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, was in December last year sentenced to 16 years in prison in a bid-rigging case at the Agriculture Ministry.
If the Democrats join such a coalition, Arie warned, “their image will only worsen.”
“They should do the brave thing and steel themselves for five years in the opposition, which would be much more positive [than joining Prabowo’s coalition],” he said.
The Democrats, however, have shown increasing signs that they will endorse Prabowo, with several top officials joining his campaign team.
They include Ahmad Mubarok, a member of the party’s board of patrons, and Marzuki Alie, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Syarif Hasan, the Democrats’ executive chairman, said on Wednesday that the party was not officially endorsing either Prabowo or Joko Widodo, the candidate from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, and that the support from individual party officials should not be construed as the party line.
Arie said the likes of Marzuki and other high-profile officials flocking to Prabowo were mere opportunists.
He pointed out that Marzuki had failed to win re-election to the House in the April 9 legislative election, and that by allying himself with Prabowo he hoped to curry favor with the candidate.